Through the Viewfinder: 3rd Street Looking West, Los Angeles, ca. 1900s

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

From the early core of pre-American Los Angeles at the historic Plaza, development of the downtown area mainly spread south and west in the latter 19th and early 20th centuries.  Moreover, as city limits expanded during that era, the linkages between downtown and suburban areas became crucial with streets and streetcar lines to get residents from their homes in the latter outlying neighborhoods to the former’s commercial core.

As subdivisions sprung up to the west, it became imperative for local leaders to figure out ways to traverse the hills that flanked downtown in that direction.  Among the solutions were tunnels drilled through these eminences, allowing for streetcars, horse-drawn conveyances and, later, automobiles to make their way to and from downtown to these western regions of Los Angeles.

Tonight’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s collection is a ca. 1900s unattributed stereoscopic photograph, published by the Pacific Stereoscopic Photo Company of Compton, of the recently completed Third Street tunnel, bored through Bunker Hill, and accessing the communities to the west.

The view looks to be from Broadway and shows how the area was completely part of the expanding commercial core of the fast-growing city, whereas twenty years or so before, the area was still largely residential.  It is perhaps notable that those structures closest to the photographer are two-story and probably older (the one on the left looks like it is in the Italianate style, which was popular in earlier decades), while moving further towards Bunker Hill, most of the buildings are six stories.  Incidentally, a man on a scaffold at the top of the structure that is third to the left can be discerned—perhaps he was washing windows or making repairs.

Also of note are the varied forms of transportation represented in the image.  Pedestrians on Broadway crossing Third are in the foreground, while a man rides a bicycle down the middle of the latter thoroughfare heading west.  Parked along both sides of Third are numerous horse-drawn conveyances, including one on the right with two white horses harnessed to a vehicle with a tall cover.  At the left, a gent reclines casually waiting for who knows what.  Behind him is a wagon stacked high with what appears to be three layers of storage.

A man approaches the photographer in an open carriage drawn by two horses and is obviously not a commercial driver.  A decade later, the same person could well have been driving an automobile.

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This stereoscopic photograph from the first decade of the 20th century shows a busy Third Street west from about Broadway looking towards Bunker Hill.

About a block away is a streetcar, operating through electricity carried through lines such as those at the top of the image, and probably that of the Los Angeles Railway (LARY), purchased in 1898 by Henry E. Huntington as part of the Southern Pacific empire controlled by his uncle, Collis P. Huntington.  After the latter’s death in 1900, the younger Huntington, cut loose from the Southern Pacific but taking the LARY with him, rapidly expanded the system.

About a decade later, having acquired other lines and built new ones, Huntington consolidated them into the massive Pacific Electric Railway (PERY) system, which gave greater Los Angeles the distinction of having the nation’s largest interurban rapid transit system in terms of track mileage.  The system emanated from downtown and spread in all directions to the valleys surrounding Los Angeles.

As the automobile, introduced in the city in the late 1890s, became cheaper and more commonly available, Angelenos fell increasingly in love with the individual freedom and convenience of the “horseless carriage” and became less likely to take rapid transit.  Within twenty or so years of this photo, autos would dominate a scene like the one shown in this photo, though streetcars held on longer than would have been the case if the Great Depression and World War II extended their life and usefulness.

In the distance is the Third Street tunnel, cut through Bunker Hill in the first few years of the 20th century.  A tunnel system still exists there, though greatly different than the one shown in the image.  On the hill above the tunnel is an observation tunnel for the Angels Flight funicular railway, which ran along the hill on the south side of the tunnel.  Check out a July 2016 post from this blog about the tunnel.

The brainchild of Colonel James W. Eddy, the narrow gauge system opened on the last day of 1901, after just about four months of construction.  Angeles Flight with its two cars, Olivet and Sinai (mountains from the Bible), ran for nearly seventy years under a series of owners before massive redevelopment in the Bunker Hill area led to its dismantling.

It was nearly thirty years later that the system was finally reconstructed a few hundred feet to the south.  A project was launched in the early 1990s to reopen the system and the first run of the restored historic cars was in February 1996.  For safety reasons, Angels Flight closed in 2013 and remained shuttered for four years.  Not quite two years ago, it reopened and remains in operation.

Something else to note about this photograph is that the image above shows it after it was scanned and restored by a contractor who has been working with the Homestead’s photographs for the last few years.  Take a look at the original below and see how much improvement was made thanks to digital processes with the human eye and mind to guide the work.

Thanks to the work of a contractor working on the digitization and, in many cases, significant restoration, of the museum’s historic photograph collection, the badly faded and significantly stained original, has been rendered into an image that is useful.

Fortunately, we have the ability to take badly damaged images like this one, which was severely faded and heavily stained, and bring them back (or nearly so) to the condition in which they were first created and distributed—in this case, over 110 years ago.

The “Through the Viewfinder” series utilizes photographs of Los Angeles and the surrounding region to visually show the transformation of the area from the 1870s through the 1920s, so continue to check back to see more examples posted usually monthly.

To see how the general area looks today, check out this Google Maps view.

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